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Northern Ireland is not ready for tax powers, says tycoon

By Noel McAdam

The row over the granting of corporation tax powers to Stormont has intensified ahead of this week's expected announcement by Chancellor George Osborne.

The go-ahead offer to the Executive is set to be confirmed in the Autumn Statement to Parliament on Wednesday, but could be tied into the ongoing negotiations on next year's NI Budget and the deadlock over welfare reform.

If the Executive then triggers the initiative - a process that could take up to two years - it will mean annual cuts to the regional block grant rising to an estimated £400m.

A leading businessman has voiced doubts over the move, likening it to being given the gift of a helicopter.

Bro McFerran, managing director of insurance company Allstate NI, said: "You have to ask can I afford to run this, have I the people to run the helicopter?"

He said he was not convinced politicians here were ready to take on corporation tax powers.

"I think I am agnostic at best on this.

"If it was gifted to us, of course it would be brilliant, as a peace dividend, but its a very sophisticated tax instrument.

"Our Northern Irish politicians need to show that they can deal and resolve the existing issues before they get into the realms of corporation tax," he said.

"I think if we introduce something where we need much greater understanding and nuance and sophistication... I'm not sure those are words that we naturally associate with our Northern Irish politicians, and I think that is something that we have to be very careful about."

In contrast, Eamon Donaghy of the lobby group Grow NI, said a lower corporation tax would make a real difference to the regional economy.

"In Northern Ireland, as a tail-end region both in the UK and Europe, we have to find a way of making ourselves more relevant.

"Lower corporation tax makes us more relevant, makes us more attractive and gets people to consider us as a place to invest in," he argued.

Prime Minister David Cameron, who is expected to visit Northern Ireland before Christmas, said Stormont had a "strong case" for taking control of corporation tax.

And Finance Minister Simon Hamilton called it a potential "game-changer".

He said the cost would be "a price worth paying" as "the positive transformational effect that could have for our economy is going to be huge".

"Even at the low end of estimates, we're talking about thousands of job, high paid, skilled jobs - something our country and economy needs," he said.

Hardline unionist Jim Allister, however, likened it to allowing "the loonies to take control of the asylum".

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